You can start your Hollywood career from anywhere. Here’s how
To the rest of the world, the entertainment industry is all glitz and glamour. Your name in lights. Awards shows.
But if you’ve decided you want a career in the entertainment industry, your first step shouldn’t be paying L.A. rent. Thanks to our newly Zoom-enabled society, you can start your career as an actor, director, writer or working another industry gig from anywhere in the world.
I spoke with four entertainment industry experts about the best ways to get started in Hollywood without having to move to Hollywood:
- Franklin Leonard, founder and chief executive of the Black List, a network and resource for working and aspiring screenwriters.
- Thuc Nguyen, a screenwriter, producer and magazine writer and cofounder of the women’s screenwriting competition the Bitch List and the diverse mentoring initiative Start With 8 Hollywood.
- Stephen Galloway, dean of the Chapman University film school and former executive editor of the Hollywood Reporter.
- Cheryl Bedford, a producer and line producer and founder of the social action organization Women of Color Unite, cofounder of Start With 8 Hollywood and creator of the women of color in filmmaking group the JTC List.
These conversations are part of a Times effort to demystify the entertainment industry, detail its many complex career paths and help people take care of their mental health, find side jobs, avoid scams and more while pursuing Hollywood dreams. We’ll keep adding articles on new topics as the weeks progress. But if you’re at Step 1 — deciding you want to break into show business — here’s what you should be considering before you book your ticket to LAX.
Become a student of TV and film
You’re going to need to know your stuff. If you want to write comedies, look up a list of the top 100 comedies of all time, and watch them. The same goes for legal procedurals or fantasy prestige series or Oscar-winning dramas.
The entertainment industry is all about telling stories. So learn from the greats.
“Watch a ton of movies, read a lot of scripts, read a lot of novels,” Leonard said. “Learn what makes a good story, well told, work so that you can then hopefully replicate it in your own work.”
You should also have a base of knowledge about the classics. Galloway said the American Film Institute Top 100 list of the greatest American movies and the British Film Institute’s corresponding list are good places to start. The American Film Institute’s big list of lists has much more. You should also know your cinephile stuff and be up on essential Latino, Black, Asian American films and more. If TV work is your goal, find the corresponding lists of television greats, and do your homework.
This advice may sound obvious, but being systematic about your research serves two purposes. You’ll be exposing yourself to the very best of the industry, building expertise and a library of shared references with other film and TV professionals. And you’ll never walk into a pitch meeting inadvertently trying to sell a roomful of executives on a ripoff of “Casablanca.”
You can also study technique from home. Going to film school is one way to learn filmmaking, but it’s not the only option. There are YouTube courses, books and blogs where you can learn to do just about anything.
“YouTube has been the great equalizer,” Bedford said. The nuts and bolts of moviemaking — using filmmaking software like Movie Magic or Final Draft, putting together and reading a budget, making a pitch deck — can all be learned there, she said.
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Join a network and find a mentor
To kick off your career in the vast and daunting entertainment industry, Bedford said to start somewhere that’s probably pretty familiar: Facebook.
She quoted casting director Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd: “Your network is your net worth.” This town is still all about who you know, but you don’t need to meet them in your Directing 101 class or at a bar or networking mixer. Facebook may feel a little old-fashioned to a younger Hollywood set, but Bedford pointed out that newcomers want to get hired by people who are older than them, and those people are often on Facebook. Groups exist for just about any combination of identity and job you can think of, like Black screenwriters or female directors.
“Find your people, find your community. That’s where it starts,” Bedford said. Her group, Women of Color Unite, is one of them.
Twitter is another place where you can connect with the people you want to work with one day.
“I’ve met wonderful writers on Twitter, and the community is really strong,” Nguyen said. She’s on the board of directors for the writing accountability network the WRAC Group.
We Can Teach You That
How to build a career in Hollywood
Join Times reporters Anousha Sakoui and Wendy Lee, as well as Bree Frank, vice president of physical production for unscripted TV at Hello Sunshine, and Phillip Sun, the president and co-founder of the management company M88, for a virtual webinar on careers in the entertainment industry. We’ll discuss the state of Hollywood jobs, how aspiring entertainers can get a foot in the door, and take your questions.
When: Tuesday, Aug. 10, 6 p.m. Pacific time
Cost: $10 for Times subscribers; $20 for non-subscribers
Tickets: Sign up on Eventbrite
What’s on your mind? Please let us know in advance of Aug. 10 about your interests and most pressing questions about working in Hollywood. Share your questions here.
Twitter can be a double-edged sword, however, especially if it’s distracting you from getting actual work done or if you’re presenting yourself in a way that might make people not want to work with you, Leonard said. If you come off as whiny or disrespectful, or if someone who’s about to call your agent finds your Twitter thread about how much you hated their last movie, your words can come back to haunt you.
“You have to be very conscious of the fact that what you say on social media has an audience of hundreds of millions of people,” Leonard said.
Part of networking is looking for potential mentors. Don’t reach out to the people at the very top of the field, Galloway said. Find someone just below that level, tell them what you like about their work specifically and ask for a 15-minute educational meeting in their office or over Zoom.
Do a few of those, he said, find someone you connect with, and ask if they’d be willing to be your mentor.
Identifying a specific person who wants to help you is better than scattershot direct-messaging everyone you know to ask if they’ll tweet about your project or help you raise $10,000 to fund it. Nguyen said it’s about building relationships and having good boundaries: “Please don’t just write to me and ask me to spend 10 hours trying to make you famous every day.”
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Learn by doing
The best way to learn any job is by doing it. You don’t need to move to Hollywood to be a screenwriter. In fact, that can be a hindrance, Leonard said.
“If I was an aspiring screenwriter, I would go somewhere with a very low cost of living, I would do what I needed to do to keep the lights on, and I would write,” he said. He offered a metaphor: Moving to Hollywood to become a writer is like moving next door to Staples Center to get good at basketball. Proximity to greatness isn’t going to make you great. Practice is.
The same is true of most industry paths. If you want to direct, make a short movie on your phone. If you want to act, volunteer to be in someone’s student film. Everyone has a supercomputer in their pocket with basic video editing software. You have no excuse not to start by doing.
The point here isn’t necessarily that an A-list director will see your film and you’ll get “discovered.” It’s about learning the ropes. Proving that you can do the work shows you’re ready to work in the field.
Galloway had another caveat: Don’t go heavily into debt to make your first film. You don’t want to have to quit the field to pay off maxed-out credit cards for a project that went nowhere.
If your aspirations aren’t something you can do by yourself — like acting, for instance — volunteer for student films and amateur projects until you have enough to put together a reel.
“That’s the only way you’re going to be able to show people what you can do,” Galloway said.
Once you have something to show, get feedback. Start with the people who will give it gladly (and more important, freely): your family and friends, your high school drama teacher, your writing accountability group. After you’ve sharpened up your first offering, reach out to your newly built network and ask if you can trade feedback with someone.
At that point, it’s time to seek objective professional responses. Leonard’s Black List is known for its annual list of the best unproduced screenplays. (“Promising Young Woman” was one of the scripts selected by the Black List in 2018. It won an Oscar this year for original screenplay.) But it also serves as an online community where screenwriters can pay to submit their work to their peers or script evaluators and get feedback.
Once you feel like your piece is ready for the world, start seeking out festivals and competitions and submit to those. (Just keep an eye out for scams.)
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Understand the career paths
Hollywood careers are generally described as being “above the line” or “below the line.”
“Above the line " refers to the performers and the people who make the major creative decisions that shape the vision for a movie or show and then persuade someone to pay for it all. That’s a small handful of people that can include the director, screenwriter, producers, cinematographer, casting director and the starring actors.
“Below the line” is everyone else: The camera operators, costume designers, line producers, production coordinators, hair and makeup, visual effects and other technicians and craftspeople who work on sets.
Many who dream of Hollywood careers dream of those above-the-line roles. But there are many excellent opportunities below the line, and Galloway tells students not to rule them out. If you learn how to be a line producer at the same time you’re sharpening your directing skills, you’ll have a skill set that lets you work in production during the day and gets your foot in the door.
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When is it time to move to L.A.?
Once you’ve done your homework, built your network, practiced your craft and researched career options, it may be time to head for Hollywood. It’s true that a lot of Hollywood careers do begin with entry-level roles that tend to cluster in this city: executive assistants, script readers, agency trainees, production assistants. Landing one of these jobs can help you build a network of connections that proves invaluable over time.
One thing Galloway said he sees a lot of film schools fail to do is prepare students to do this entry-level work. Look at listings for those careers and see what they’re looking for. Then, when you’re ready to look for a job, reach out to your new online network for connections.
But the right time to move to Los Angeles might also be never.
“The world has gotten a lot bigger and a lot smaller at the exact same time,” Bedford said. If someone tells you they want to make your pilot and you say, “Actually, I live in Atlanta. I can take a Zoom meeting this week and then fly out in a couple weeks,” more people are going to be OK with that now than in the pre-pandemic past. Obviously, if you want to be operating a camera, you need to be physically present. Build up your skills from wherever you are and come to L.A. when you’re ready to start working. But if you’re in a role where you can do your work from anywhere, it’s less urgent to spend your life year-round in expensive California.
Don’t get me wrong — I think L.A. is a great place to live. But you probably don’t have to move here today to get started on a career in the entertainment industry.
Careers in the entertainment industry can be mysterious for those just starting out, and even for those working in the business. The Los Angeles Times brings you explainers and advice for starting and building your career in Hollywood.
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